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No reprieve for 'Cancer Alley': Louisiana pollution correlates with preterm births


In a stretch of Louisiana near the Mississippi River, hundreds of oil factories have polluted the air for decades. It's a highly toxic environment known as Cancer Alley. It's one of the most polluted places in the world. And people who live in that area, particularly Black people with low incomes, have faced seriously elevated risks of cancer and respiratory disease. Now a new study has focused on how the toxic air may affect pregnant people and their children, potentially leading to low birth weights and preterm births. Jessica Kutz has been reporting on this for the nonprofit site The 19th and joins us now. Welcome.

JESSICA KUTZ: Hi. Thank you.

CHANG: Thank you. So tell us a little more about what this study found exactly.

JESSICA KUTZ: Yeah. So the main findings of the study were that when you looked at census tracts that had high air pollution, there was also a higher rate of low birth weight and also preterm births.

CHANG: And briefly explain what you mean by those two things - low weight birth and preterm birth.

JESSICA KUTZ: Right. So low birth weights are babies that are born under 5 pounds and 8 ounces. And preterm births are babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. And that's important because there's, like, long-term life impacts for those babies. So that could lead to respiratory issues like asthma or other developmental issues that can kind of follow that baby through personhood.

CHANG: Right. And we should note that this study found a correlation, but the researchers - they do acknowledge that the data doesn't prove causation, right? So even if that's the case, why does this study matter?

JESSICA KUTZ: Yeah. As you mentioned, they can't prove causation because you would have to essentially expose pregnant people to toxic air pollution intentionally and then see what the results are.

CHANG: Right.

JESSICA KUTZ: So this study builds on other studies from other states, just kind of adding to the evidence that toxic air pollution does likely correlate to poor birth outcomes. And in the state of Louisiana, it has one of the highest rates of low birth weights and preterm births. So this is just kind of another clue as to why that is.

CHANG: Well, I saw that you talked to a woman who herself had seen the effects of this pollution on her own life, on her own family. Can you tell us a little bit about her?

JESSICA KUTZ: Absolutely. So yeah. So I talked to a resident named Ashley, and she has three children. They were all born preterm, and they were all born at low birth weights. And she realized that her mother had similar experiences with her pregnancies, her sisters, her friends, other people in her community and had kind of become normalized. So I think it was, in some ways, a surprise. But in other ways, she and other women - they have been aware of the other impacts of pollution on their community's health, and they have been pretty active in doing, you know, environmental justice work.

CHANG: Well, where is the EPA on all of this? I mean, this area - it's called Cancer Alley for a reason, from the fact that the risk of cancer is much worse in this region of Louisiana. So government regulators - how much have they responded?

JESSICA KUTZ: So the EPA is obviously aware of the situation in Cancer Alley. And as recently as 2022, the EPA actually opened a civil rights investigation looking into whether state regulators had violated the civil rights of Black residents living in this part of the state. They were sued by the attorney general, and so they later dropped the case, which is controversial in itself. But that is kind of the latest move that the EPA did make.

CHANG: Right. Jessica Kutz is a gender, climate and sustainability reporter for the nonprofit site The 19th. Thank you very much.

JESSICA KUTZ: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.